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Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto goes on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday in a high-stakes case for the under-fire tribunal.
Ruto, 46, charged with masterminding deadly post-election violence five years ago, is the most senior politician to date to face ICC judges, just days after Kenyan MPs voted to abandon the court in a world first.
He and his co-accused, radio boss Joshua arap Sang, 38, each face three counts of murder, deportation and persecution after a wave of violence swept Kenya in 2007-08.
Their case opens against the backdrop of Thursday's largely symbolic vote to quit the ICC's founding Rome Statute, with many Kenyan politicians branding the court a "neo-colonialist" institution.
The vote will not affect Ruto's trial or that of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in November, but observers fear it may spark an exodus of court member states in Africa, where all the ICC's current cases are based.
Dozens of Kenyan MPs have promised to show their support for the accused by flying to the Netherlands for the start of the trial.
At least 1,100 people died and 600,000 others were displaced in the violence that erupted after a tainted presidential election at the end of 2007.
Riots to protest alleged vote rigging spiralled into ethnic killings and reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of unrest since independence in 1963.
Prosecutors accuse Ruto, who supported the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) at the time, of masterminding a plan to unleash attacks on supporters of then president Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU).
The violence laid bare simmering ethnic tensions, with assaults mainly directed at members of Kenya's largest Kikuyu tribe who were perceived as PNU supporters.
Pre-trial judges said evidence suggested that Ruto held a number of meetings to plan the ethnic killings as far back as December 2006.
Prosecution witnesses allege that at one such meeting Ruto and other members of his Kalenjin tribe were "sprinkled with the blood of dogs" as they took an oath to "mercilessly kill" members of opposing tribes.
Initial attacks quickly led to reprisals with homes torched and more people hacked to death, bringing some parts of the country to the brink of civil war.
In one particular brutal incident, victims were hoarded into a church at Kiambaa in the west of the country which was set ablaze on New Year's Day 2008.
Prosecutors said between 17 and 35 people burned to death while others were hacked to pieces trying to flee.
Ruto and one-time bitter opponent Kenyatta, facing five counts of crimes against humanity for his role in the upheaval, both deny the charges.
The ICC, the world's only independent, permanent tribunal for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, took charge of the cases after Nairobi failed to set up a tribunal of its own in line with agreements brokered by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Kenya's two top politicians have pledged their continued support, but on the ground, prosecutors say they've run into a government stonewall, with witnesses facing "unprecedented" levels of intimidation.
Earlier this year, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda accused the Kenyan government of "compromising the ability" of her office (OTP) to probe the crimes.
"Every time the ICC process inches forward to deliver a justice denied Kenyans by their own government, the country's political establishment scrambles furiously to block the way," said Elizabeth Evenson, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch's International Justice Programme.
The ICC has come under increased pressure globally, especially from the 54-nation African Union, which accused the court of targeting the continent on the basis of race.
Bensouda, a Gambian, hit back at critics, saying those trying to block the ICC "are trying to protect the perpetrators of these crimes."
The cases could take up to two years to complete.
© 2013 AFP
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